Former Joint Chiefs chairman David C. Jones dies at 92

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the 1980 rescue attempt of U.S. hostages in Iran was aborted after a helicopter collided with a transport plane on the ground, killing eight service members. The mission was called off before the accident. In addition, his wife, Lois Tarbell Jones, died in 2009, not 2007.


Gen. David C. Jones in 1981, when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff. (James K.W. Atherton/The Washington Post)
August 13, 2013

David C. Jones, a retired Air Force general who was the nation’s top military officer as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1978 to 1982, died Saturday at Falcons Landing, a military retirement community in Potomac Falls. He was 92.

He had Parkinson’s disease, a daughter, Kathy Franklin, said.

After serving as Air Force chief of staff for four years, Gen. Jones was named to lead the Joint Chiefs by President Jimmy Carter. Gen. Jones was one of the few top generals of the time who had never attended a service academy or graduated from college.

Although he saw combat during the Korean War as a B-29 bomber pilot, Gen. Jones was less a battlefield hero than a skilled administrator and strategist. He took a speed-reading course and worked standing at his desk. He was ambidextrous, capable of writing with either hand.

“Cool, meticulous, low-key and dogged,” a Time magazine article said in 1979, “Jones typifies the new breed of military managers.”

When Gen. Jones took over as chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1978, he expressed concern that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union in military preparedness during the waning years of the Cold War.

“I intend to spend a great deal of time in the nonglamorous areas of readiness,” he told the Christian Science Monitor. His motto was “readiness now.”

The general was a key figure in the Carter administration’s negotiations with the Soviet Union during SALT II, the second phase of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, in the late 1970s.

He also was the chief planner of a failed mission in 1980 to rescue 53 U.S. hostages in Iran. The rescue effort was marred by a sandstorm and ultimately aborted. Eight service members were killed when a helicopter collided on the ground with a transport plane.

“Nobody regretted more than the Joint Chiefs that we failed,” Gen. Jones told The Washington Post in 1980. “But if you get into a sort of philosophy where you cannot afford to take a risk, then the system will act in an extremely cautious way. This is a risky world, and we’d better be willing to take risks.”

Despite criticism from U.S. and international military leaders for his planning of the raid, Gen. Jones stayed on as chairman of the Joint Chiefs after Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980. The hostages were freed on Jan. 20, 1981, the day Reagan took office.

David Charles Jones was born July 9, 1921, in Aberdeen, S.D., and grew up in Minot, N.D. He attended Minot State University before enlisting in the Army Air Forces during World War II. He trained pilots at air bases in the United States.

After piloting bombers during the Korean War, he flew aerial tankers for midair refueling. From 1955 to 1957, he was a top aide to Gen. Curtis LeMay, then the commander of the Strategic Air Command and a key architect of U.S. bombing missions during World War II.

Gen. Jones graduated from the National War College in 1960 and held a series of command positions in the Vietnam War and with NATO in Europe.

After becoming Air Force chief of staff in 1974, he led efforts to improve race relations in the ranks. He also launched an efficiency initiative that cut thousands of civilian and military jobs in the Air Force.

Near the end of his tenure as Joint Chiefs chairman in 1982, Gen. Jones began to speak out for reform of the organizational framework of the military, starting with the Joint Chiefs themselves.

“There is an absolutely critical need to change this nation’s structure of military leadership,” he told U.S. News & World Report in 1982. “Historically, the United States has not paid attention to military organization until a catastrophe occurs.”

He believed that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs should have more authority and that the different services too often worked at cross purposes.

Despite charges that civilian control of the military would be eroded, many of Gen. Jones’s suggestions were embodied in the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, which streamlined the military chain of command.

After retiring from the Air Force in 1982, Gen. Jones served on the boards of many corporations and nonprofit groups, including USAir, U.S. Steel, General Electric and the American Red Cross.

He served as chief executive of the National Education Corp. in 1989 and 1990.

Gen. Jones was a longtime resident of Arlington County.

His wife of 67 years, Lois Tarbell Jones, died in 2009.

Survivors include three children, David Curtis Jones of Sterling, Kathy Franklin of Silver Spring and Susan Coffin of Scottsdale, Ariz.; a sister; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Reflecting on one of the more dramatic episodes of his career, the failed effort to bring home the hostages from Iran, Gen. Jones said in 1980: “I think this country has an obsession with trying to fix blame for things. If there’s a clear dereliction of duty, that’s one thing. But to set out to fix blame is, I think, unbecoming of America.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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